ROSSINI OPERA FESTIVAL 2018 – TOWARDS KNOWN AND UNKNOWN REGIONS

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By Dr. Kyriakos P. Loukakos, Hon. President of Hellenic Drama and Music Critics’ Union

It is by no coincidence that we chose to entitle this review with a reference to a lesser known but visionary Ralph Vaughan – Williams work. Then, it seemed initially to be a somewhat debatable choice, at least on paper, to combine two of the least revisited Rossini works with his most performed masterpiece in remembrance of the composer’s passing, 150 years ago. We even sensed a certain dissent among ordinary people, our taxi driver for instance, who was anxious to inform us, upon our arrival to the railway station of Pesaro, that seasoned French friends of the Festival, his customers, had cancelled their presence there, presumably because of the institution’s vulgarization. After having attended all three performances of this year’s event, we have to admit that ROF knew better how to impress us, offering model performances and productions so as to belie any of our initial inhibitions.

What impressed us even more was the Festival’s feat, to enthrall us primarily with its most dangerous choice. The ubiquitous Il Barbiere di Siviglia proved to be a marvel of dramaturgical as well as musicological distillation of an incredibly vulgarized  score, thanks to the brilliant idea of Sovrintendente Ernesto Palacio and his erudite team to invite the venerable Pier Luigi Pizzi to direct his first ever (!) production of it, after a career that included circa 30 productions of other Rossini operas by this genial master!

Barbiere for the annals

       From the first measures of its evergreen overture we sensed an elevated quality in this last premiere performance of this year’s Festival (13.08.2018). Not only because of the precious presence of the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della Rai at the Adriatic Arena but also thanks to Yves Abel’s sprightly, elegant baton, incidentally a conductor we tended to underestimate ever since his disappointing recording of Jules Massenet’s Thais featuring the lush Renée  Fleming in the title role. It soon became evident that the Franco-Canadian conductor had collaborated closely with Maestro Pizzi through a flood of orthodox ideas to approach this operatic text and actually to dignify it.

Within the frame of a flexible, delectably grey blue colored scenery, airily interchanging inner and outer spaces, that juxtaposed elegant manors, the one inhabited by Dr. Bartolo, to the right of the scene, and the other housing temporarily Count Almaviva, on the right, the story evolved always from a dramatically believable start point. Firstly, Pizzi had thankfully no hesitation to unashamedly opt for a cast corresponding to the libretto’s expectations. We admired the half awoken (after all it is early dawn!) long drawn, patrician beauty of shirtless, blond tenor Maxim Mironov as a young and amorous Count directing an impressively characterized and similarly youthful and involved Fiorello (the Venice born baritone William Corrò) and his bunch of musicians, called in to serenade Rosina. Their chaotic gratitude to the Count’s generosity was superbly organized so as to really convince as such. And, mind you, regarding Figaro, one should not marvel as to why he makes his public appearance early enough to disturb the Count’s amorous endeavors. Dark haired and skinned, shorter than his master-to-be but well built, the athletic baritone Davide Luciano comes to the fore just to take a bath at the basin of the piazzetta between the two houses. Shirtless and barefoot, full of Mediterranean zest, he uses the opportunity and the passage in front of the orchestra to state his character and activities in his famous cavatina. When Figaro and the Count settle down to collaborate on their «useless precaution» scheme, their iconic social juxtaposition would be envied even by the most characterful combination of Don Giovanni and Leporello. Not to mention Fiorello’s brief recitativo secco that forms the bridge to act 1 scene 2. We were aware of it since the first complete recordings of this opera, the earlier one under Erich Leinsdorf (Rca Victor 1964) and another, later, conducted by James Levine (EMI 1975). But only in this occasion this brief and unimpressive dry recitative passage was pronounced with such a pre-Revolutionary vehemence that transforms this servant to the predecessor of Figaro in Mozart’s opera (possibly a post litteram tribute by librettist Cesare Sterbini to the divine duo Mozart – Da Ponte?).

Indeed dry recitative was performed throughout without abbreviations, thoroughly rehearsed musically and dramatically, and, for once, it was credited the importance it deserves. Then it illuminates the plot’s proceedings and contributes to the delineation of  characters, all of whom  Pizzi considers  «monsters», equally capable for the noble and the despicable and as modern as the in between proverbial ones  of 1977 «Nuovi Mostri» film, co-directed then by Mario Monicelli, Dino Risi and Ettore Scola. As presented in its entirety, dry recitative hinted also to Rossini’s prudence and even reverential terror of a direct confrontation with Giovanni Paisiello’s earlier and very successful Barbiere, indicated perhaps by his reluctance to make much of the scene among Bartolo and his defeated by tobacco servants, a trio which had been one of the most popular numbers in the Paisiello opera!

Singing Almaviva in the presence of the role’s current foremost exponent (Juan Diego Flórez and family were seated in the audience a few seats away from the Mariotti family, including star conductor Michele) and his renowned teacher (tenor Ernesto Palacio, himself a pioneer in Rossini style) must be a tough deal. But Maxim Mironov soon overcame an initial nervousness to present a stylish and vivid characterization and to sing with increasing suppleness of tone and gracious phrasing throughout the opera, interacting enthusiastically with the others and keeping reserves for his fiendishly difficult and often omitted 2nd act aria, which was presented complete and with adorable coloratura exuberance by this excellent Russian artist.  As Figaro Davide Luciano offered a vocally strong and histrionically direct portrayal, missing (yet?) just the characteristic vocal imprint of most illustrious among his predecessors as documented on record and on the screen. Japanese mezzo-soprano Aya Wakizono presented a youthful and lovable Rosina, gorgeously dressed by Pizzi, moving with a much called in ingeniousness that suits the character and lacking only the last ounce of vocal personality in her otherwise refined and euphonious portrayal.

As for Bartolo, in this production, he was for once not caricaturized but presented as respectable and cultured, fueled as he of course is by the lowly motivation to acquire Rosina’s dowry (which is finally acquitted to him as we learn thanks to the full recitative!). Pizzi is content to limit his intervention to the mere fact of age difference in order to establish a gap in perception and temperament between the tutor and his prospective bride. As an ageing doctor of medicine of this kind, Pietro Spagnoli introduced a constant elderly sounding deformation of tone, much in the succession of the late Renato Capecchi in the aforementioned Levine recording, but he nevertheless created a dramatically acute persona of subtle inflexions and his singing was never less than pin point, not least in his demanding act 1 aria which was much applauded by the audience. He proved also a perfect foil for the uniquely unexaggerated Basilio, dressed as the sinister clergyman prescribed by the libretto and sung with superb verbal acuity and tonal smoothness by the experienced bass Michele Pertusi, who scored a personal triumph in this role. Finally, veteran Elena Zilio’s  return to Pesaro as Berta, for the first time since her Pippo in La Gazza ladra, back in 1981(!), provided a moving instance of continuity and respect for the Festival’s origins, besides adding an immensely experienced member to the cast. She mingled idiomatically with the rest and excelled in her delightful aria di sorbetto as an out-of-her-mind neglected woman, deprived of love and sex, and out of the blue harassing sexually the totally shocked house  servant Ambrogio (a mute role acted with measure by Armando de Ceccon).

All-in-all this Barbiere was a life enhancing eye opener to this masterful opera. And therefore it was doubly moving to listen, days after our live experience, to Dr. Gianfranco Mariotti’s words during an interview to the RAI Radiotre colleague, Oreste Bossini. ROF’s Honorary Director recalled his life changing experience, back in the remote 1969, when he first attended Barbiere at the Teatro alla Scala, literally transformed by the then recent critical edition by the late and much lamented Alberto Zedda. A sleepless night of excitement for him followed this unforgettable performance and gave birth to the idea of a specialized Festival at Rossini’s birthplace. An idea that, 11 years later, led to the first Rossini Opera Festival!

Better than Mosè?

At the cost of our missing some promising concerts, the ever refreshing Viaggio a Reims by the alumni of the Accademia Rossiniana and the concluding Petite Messe Solennelle, transmitted on video wall at the central Piazza del Popolo, we savoured the first time the privilege of enjoying the more mundane climate of the three premieres of the Festival, including costumed reception events, the presence of the RAI 5 channel cameras, invaluable in preserving the spectacles for posterity, as well the more unobtrusive microphones of the Rai Radiotre.

  «Ricciardo e Zoraide» remains a rarity even for Pesaro. Its last airing here had taken place back in 1990 at the Palafestival, rumored to be for some time now under reconstruction.  This production was incidentally meant to form the ROF debut one for an extremely young Juan Diego Flórez, not in the title role but as diplomat Ernesto. A debut that was finally to follow in 1996, when Flórez was called to impersonate Corradino Cuor-di-Ferro in another exceptional rarity, «Mathilde di Shabran», covering for an ailing Bruce Ford and scoring an unprecedented triumph that catapulted him overnight to the international Belcanto scene.

For many the Peruvian mastersinger was the main attraction for attending this rare opera. In the long run of the evening one realised the extreme feebleness of Francesco Berio di Salsa’s stock libretto of a love drama serio in a world vindicated by crusaders and Asian monarchs. A work which, especially in act 2, seemed to go on forever, in spite of  Marshall Pynkoski ‘s  interesting production, with a historically informed, beautiful  scenery by Gerard Gauci, colourful costumes by Michael Gianfrancesco and abundantly choreographed by Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg. They all tried everything, but it was impossible to give verve and movement to such a static, repetitive and uninventive plot. We therefore keep our distance from the dissent expressed by part of the public against the production team during the curtain calls, a dissent that we think should be addressed exclusively to the late librettist who obviously lacked a sense for dramaturgy.

But what of Rossini’s music? Well, it kept surprising us, constantly adventurous and daring in its surprising modulations, full of exciting ideas with often memorable development, even from the more conventional origin of stage band music. The untypical overture leading directly to the first scene, the construction of the big act 1 finale, the rival tenors duet in act 2, or the love duet between Ricciardo and Zoraide after their recognition, were only some of the highlights in Rossini’s invention.

      The opera was served by an exceptional roster of artists. Virile and handsome Sergey Romanovsky as the title hero’s rival, King Agorante was first to appear on stage. This Bolshoi Theatre stalwart made an impressive entrance and throughout defended admirably the murderous range of his baritone – tenor part, a second barytenore at this venue after the formidable Michael Spyres in previous seasons. Ricciardo enters the scene much later, with an accordingly impressive aria, intoxicatingly sung by Flórez. He not only presented a formidable alternative of type voice in tenor territory for arias and ensembles, but also his bright and plangent timbre matched admirably with that of Romanovsky’s darker tone for their act 2 feigned complicity duet, that, if heard out of context, could very well be mistaken as a love duet for the men! As for the third tenor of the performance, suffice to mention that we had first been impressed by Xabier Anduaga, back in 2016, when he had contributed, as Chevalier Belfiore, to an Accademia Rossiniana performance of Il Viaggio a Reims. In the not exactly minor role of Ernesto this promising Spaniard gave an alert and vigorous performance, well differentiated from his two other tenor colleagues, which earned for him a much deserved, enthusiastic applause by the premiere public.

Coming to the ladies of the evening, we bestow nothing less than unreserved praise for Pretty Yende’s exceptional Zoraide. The South African soprano, who emerged from the Operalia contest run by Plácido Domingo, combined scenic beauty with singing of extraordinary purity and presence, transparent of tone and graced with luminous diction. With not so much to sing, Moscow born mezzo-soprano Victoria Yarovaya presented Zomira, Agorante’s wife, as a credible rival to  Yende’s Zoraide, rising with full tone to their rivalry duet and phrasing well her not so negligible aria di sorbetto.  The experienced bass Nicola Ulivieri did what he could for the brief and rather uninteresting part of Zoraide’s father, King Ircano, with welcome if somewhat faceless vignettes from Romanian lyric mezzo-soprano Martiniana Antonie as Elmira, Zoraide’s confidante, and Georgian soprano Sofia Mchedlishvili as Fatima, Zomira’s lady-in-waiting. The many interesting touches of the orchestral writing were well served by the musicians of the Turin based Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della Rai vividly and knowingly conducted by the rising maestro Giacomo Sagripanti.

Adina – Yet  another  farsa?

  The only one of this year’s 3 operas presented in the beautifully situated Teatro Rossini, central to the city of Pesaro, was «Adina, ovvero Il Califfo di Bagdad» (12.08), another absolute rarity, a solitary and late one among Rossini’s farse, a commission from Portugal, composed in great haste during a sojourn of Rossini at his parents Bologna house, in spring 1818. Its first performance took place at the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos of Lisbon with great delay, in 1826, comprising only 3 original numbers. Others were adopted from previous works like Rossini’s «Sigismondo» and some, as well as the recitatives, are believed to have been composed by others. Having stated that and additionally that the work was composed to a libretto by Gherardo Bevilacqua Aldobrandini, actually being a reduction of an older one by Felice Romani, one is amazed by the striking unity of the piece, its more than occasional underlying seriousness, its full formal and aesthetic pretensions in a well known thematic frame used among many others also by Mozart in his Die Entführung aus dem Serail.

Having long lost her father, Adina becomes the bride-to-be of the Califo, himself a widower of a much lamented wife. But just as Adina has reconciled herself with the idea of becoming an imperial consort, she has to face the recognition of her all time love Selimo, long presumed dead. The desperate and life threatening situation for the lovers is overcome when the Califo realizes that Adina is his long lost daughter, so that nothing anymore paves the  way towards a lieto fine.

Keeping distance from overdoing the nowadays politically sensitive Arabic element, this new production by Rosetta Cucchi, a joint venture with the Wexford Festival, has opted for the purely farsic aspect of the work, presenting as central to the scenery a giant bridal cake with inner rooms in 2 levels, upstairs for the title heroine and downstairs for the Califo, complete with a bath for the monarch. Under the serious yet versatile conducting of Venezuelan conductor Diego Matheuz, making his debut at the ROF after a 4-year term at the Teatro La Fenice di Venezia, all three principals proved outstanding, including the young Sassuolo – born tenor Mattheo Macchioni, who impersonated the part of the eunuch Ali with drag queen flair, taking care of his master’s bath in the most intimate way and making a  real tour de force of his demanding character aria.

The brilliant baritone Vito Priante, a well known interpreter in this and Mozart repertoire, presented an authoritative, stern yet sympathetic autocrat, singing with smooth tone and undemonstrative bravoura. His rival was the young South African tenor Levy Sekgapane, another winner of the Operalia (2017), who gave a scalding performance of Selimo, indomitable even in the most stratospheric demands of the required tessitura. Although confiding to Bossini’s microphone that such roles as Adina are not really natural to her, American soprano Lisette Oropesa scored a personal triumph in the title role. She  encompassed with apparently effortless virtuosity the pyrotechnic demands of her part without compromising in the least the breathtaking clarity and warmth of her singing. With firm support from young baritone Davide Giangregorio as Selimo’s accomplish Mustafa, vigorous choral contribution (Coro del Teatro della Fortuna M. Agostini) and devoted playing from the local Orchestra Sinfonica G. Rossini, the presumed 80-minutes trifle proved a treat for those fortunate to participate to yet another Rossini revelation…